KRUGERSDORP, South Africa (AP) — Protesters in the South African town of Krugersdorp beat suspected illegal miners with sticks and set fire to their camps on Thursday after more than 80 men, believed to be miners, were arrested in connection with the gang rapes of eight women last week.
Residents of Kagiso Municipality in Krugersdorp also barricaded roads with rocks and burning tires during a protest against the miners’ presence. They said they are frustrated by the high crime rate they attribute to illegal miners and the police’s alleged failure to deal with them.
Some suspected illegal miners were stripped of their clothes and flogged by local residents, who also chased others out of their camps and punched and kicked them before handing them over to the police.
Police responded by firing rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters, who also clashed with police officers. In some cases, officials rescued the people who were attacked.
“We want police support because the illegal miners are terrorizing us. We can’t just walk around the neighborhood at night because they rape us,” said Nhlanhla Felatsi, who was part of the protest. “We recently had an incident where two female security officers were raped by the same people. The police are not protecting us.”
Police said eight women were raped on July 28 when a television crew filming a music video at a mine dump in the nearby West Village community was attacked by heavily armed men, some suspected of being illegal miners . Police said they were investigating 32 cases of rape.
The attack was a shocking incident, even for a country like South Africa, used to high levels of violent crime. More than 80 men accused of involvement in the gang rapes appeared in court on Monday.
Illegal mining is rampant in South Africa, with miners known as zama-zamas prospecting for gold in the many disused and abandoned mines in and around the Johannesburg region. Krugersdorp is a mining town on the western edge of Johannesburg.
Illegal mining gangs are considered dangerous by police, are usually armed, and have been known to engage in fierce turf wars with rival groups. The trade is believed to be dominated by immigrants arriving illegally from neighboring countries Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and police said some of the men suspected of raping the eight women were foreigners.
That has made the situation worse and comes at a time when South Africa is seeing a surge in xenophobic attacks unleashed by locals who blame foreigners for crimes in their areas.
“What upsets me is that we live as if we are not South Africans. How can someone come out of nowhere and control us in our community?” said Thoko Setlhabi from Kagiso. “People from Lesotho and Zimbabwe come into our homes and rape us. You must ensure that you and your family are inside by 6pm. When can our children be free?”
Police say they are still analyzing DNA evidence to link some of the suspects to the rapes. But residents have criticized local police for failing to take action despite warnings from locals that illegal miners were operating as part of larger crime syndicates in the area.
“We’re not just fighting the zama-zamas (illegal miners), we’re fighting all crime. Our police have to stand up, our police have to pull up their socks,” said Kabelo Matlou, a local government official.
“There’s clearly something wrong here. If someone fetches gold here, where does he take it? Our political leaders need to come together and sort this out,” he said.